Mourning Miscarriage

Bereavement Debate Raises Questions About Mystery of Human Life

New Zealand has just joined a small handful of countries that offer paid bereavement leave after a miscarriage or stillbirth. The bill, which passed unanimously, became law in March, and allows women to claim up to three days of paid leave after losing an unborn child.

Leah Libresco Sargeant praises the new legislation at the Institute for Family Studies blog, commenting, “A mother shouldn’t need to question whether her bodily suffering is enough to interfere with her work and qualify for medical leave. Bereavement leave is more unconditional.” She offers her own experience of miscarriage, writing that the doctors treated her and her husband “brusquely,” counseling them to get back to work and get over it. Libresco Sargeant also writes, “I would love to see the United States follow New Zealand’s bereavement leave example, but as long as our workplaces don’t take caring responsibilities seriously, many parents will struggle to find space to grieve the unborn children they’ve lost.”

While most media coverage of the new law praised it as a huge step forward for women, Lara Freidenfelds at CNN took issue with the word “bereavement” in the language of the bill. “The term ‘bereavement’ dictates a particular emotional and existential interpretation of what is in fact a complicated and ambiguous event for many who experience it,” she writes. “Putting the term into policy unnecessarily imposes a single interpretation, forecloses other possibilities that carry less emotional burden, and may even impose a new burden of guilt and shame on those who seek a different way to understand miscarriage.” When she and her husband suffered a miscarriage, they found it comforting to think that in the “not-too-distant past,” her miscarriage would have been considered more of a “false start” than the loss of a family member.

She writes further that the medical advances of the last century, combined with the efforts of marketers who want to capitalize on women’s attachment to their new pregnancy, have made very early pregnancies feel much more real than ever before. For millennia before ultrasound technology or even pregnancy tests, the beginnings of pregnancy were shrouded in mystery. A woman may suspect she was pregnant, but would have little way of confirming it until she felt the child moving within her—the “quickening,” usually at around the four-month mark. Freidenfelds writes that as governments and workplaces seek to extend compassion to those suffering a miscarriage, they should consider instead using the language of “loss,” “so that our legal frameworks do not trap us in just one definition of a complicated and difficult experience.”

Freidenfelds’ argument deserves sympathy, but is indicative of greater cultural confusion and distortion over the meaning of pregnancy and birth. As one WORLD article points out, Vogue praised New Zealand’s new legislation, saying it addresses an “urgent health issue.” Meanwhile, not long ago, Teen Vogue “trumpeted” a study claiming to prove that abortion has negligible impact on women’s mental health. In other words, miscarriage is painful for women and deserving of compassion, because the woman miscarrying wanted the child. But abortion is easy, painless, and should be celebrated, because the woman aborting didn’t want the child. The value of the life of the child is measured only against the standard of its wanted-ness.

I might suggest that the language of bereavement does not necessarily mean forcing a specific emotional response from those who are bereaved, but rather suggests value for the life that is lost regardless of how others feel about that loss. We don’t hesitate to call the loss of an adult a “bereavement,” even though there are plenty of instances when that passing might cause a complex range of emotions in those living. The death of a loved one who abuses us in some way might bring with it a sense of sadness and grief, but also perhaps of relief. The passing of one who has long been suffering might also bring a sense of relief or even joy that the suffering is over. Death produces a whole range of complicated emotions in those who live, and that’s to be expected.  But changing our terminology to suit our own particular emotional response is a disservice to the one who has passed. The Merriam-Webster definition of “bereaved” is “suffering the death of a loved one.” It’s acceptable to insist that the words “death” and “loved one” be tied to a miscarried child. It is a death; the baby should be loved. And it’s equally acceptable for a woman to not feel the full weight of grief that she might feel, for example, at the death of a five-year-old. She didn’t know the miscarried baby; she did know her five-year-old, intimately.

But insisting that we change policy language to reflect “loss” rather than bereavement is to do a disservice to the unborn baby, and perhaps even to other women who have miscarried. Miscarriage, Freidenfelds suggests, should be a “bereavement” only if the parents find that understanding to be comforting. Might such a relativistic interpretation encourage not-so-sympathetic employers to invoke their own understanding of life when evaluating whether a woman needs some extra time off or more sympathy after a miscarriage? Might it make some women feel embarrassed that their grief at a miscarriage is too heavy, if we can assign meaning to life given our own standards? 

Softening language because not everyone has the same emotional response still ends up hurting someone—the baby, and other miscarrying women. Death is complicated, and no, not all women will feel the same way about a miscarriage. That’s OK. Let’s learn to accept some level of discomfort and ambiguity in our own emotional responses, rather than relabeling the death of an unborn child.

is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family.

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